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Teaching Kids Touch: Consent vs. Grandma’s Feelings

June 22, 2012

Earlier this week, I shared a story, thoughts, and discussion on Facebook that I want to expand and make more findable here, on the subject of forcing children to hug and kiss other people, especially in order to be polite.

I had shared this recent piece by Katia Hetter, “I Don’t Own My Child’s Body,” and it’s a great, provocative piece, and I very much agree with the central concept. The author writes, about not forcing her child to hug her grandmother if she doesn’t want to:

She doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone just because I say so, not even me. I will not override my own child’s currently strong instincts to back off from touching someone who she chooses not to touch.

I figure her body is actually hers, not mine.

It doesn’t belong to her parents, preschool teacher, dance teacher or soccer coach. While she must treat people with respect, she doesn’t have to offer physical affection to please them. And the earlier she learns ownership of herself and responsibility for her body, the better for her.

This is clear enough – children own their own bodies, and have their own rights to withhold touch of those bodies. It’s a good skill for them to develop early on.

My own take a nutshell:
I think it’s appropriate to teach children that if they feel uncomfortable hugging or kissing *anybody,* at *any time,* they don’t have to. I think it’s inappropriate for children to be taught that they must consent to any kind of touch *in order to make other people happy or more comfortable.*

The topic generated some controversy among a few of my Facebook friends, though. In particular, objection focused on the “grandma” aspect, arguing that hugging or kissing her against one’s will wouldn’t harm anything and would make an old lady happy.

No, I don’t think that forcing a kid to hug your nice, sweet grandma one time is going to lead to sexual abuse. The problem is not that grandma might be a sexual predator, although that’s possible. The problem is the failure to support children in defining their own boundaries for touch and consent, and the message the forcing sends that children – now and throughout their lives – should reluctantly consent to some kinds of touch in order to not hurt someone else’s feelings.

As a child, I was often instructed to go around and hug everybody and tell them goodbye at family gatherings. I was extremely uncomfortable with this routine, and there were certain adults – mostly adjacent men who are not part of the family anymore – who I actively tried to avoid and dreaded being forced to hug. Did those men ever molest me? No. One of them actually hid my shoes, and another young female cousin’s shoes, making me feel extremely uncomfortable and as though I couldn’t escape the house where we were. Being explicitly told that this guy was in fact creepy and I did not have to hug him, even if I’d hugged everybody else, would have validated my feelings and also made me feel less vulnerable. I don’t blame my parents for that situation, but I think of it when I think of wanting to allow children to trust their own instincts about touch.

Another personal example:
I walk as part of my car- free commute. Not too long ago, I was offered a ride by a man in a windowless white van. Silence of the Lambs, anybody? But it wasn’t just the vehicle that was creepy, it was this exchange:

Driver: You want a ride?
Me: No, thanks.
Driver: Are you sure, it’s no trouble.
Me: No.
Driver: Aww, come on, you’ll hurt my feelings.

This is exactly the kind of shit predators say to potential victims – especially women – to play on their socialization toward being nice and helpful, and not to hurt anybody’s feelings. Other creepy-ass dudes who have tried to bother me while I’m walking have pretty much all had some variation on this women’s socialization approach – often starting by asking me for help.

Who doesn’t want to be helpful? Who wants to ignore somebody in need? Who wants to hurt sweet ol’ granny’s feelings when all she wants is a hug?

There’s a reason we tell children not to go with some adult who claims to need help finding their puppy – it’s because we understand how “can you help me?” functions as a ploy to get potential victims off their guard by taking advantage of their socialization.

“It’s just a hug” and “you’ll hurt my/her/his feelings” function in a similar way. It tells children that they are not the ultimate arbiters of what kind of touch they’re comfortable with and when, that somebody else’s feelings are more important than their own needs, discomfort, or boundaries.

I believe this message is part of a continuum that encourages victims to feel responsible for their own abuse (“If I’d trusted my instincts…”) and makes it easier for predators to groom and attract their victims (“You don’t want to hurt my feelings, do you?”).

Aunt B has talked about this idea here, and although I can’t quite articulate why yet, I think this is somehow related to the idea of “enthusiastic consent” that Jacyln Friedman and others have been discussing – an idea that acknowledges all the fucked up ways we convince people to give up consent to touch (sexual or otherwise), rather than encouraging touch to happen when all parties are explicitly willing and actively consenting. I’m also seeing this as part of a culture and continuum that until recently refused to acknowledge that wives could be raped by their husbands, because of expectations of what wives were “supposed” to always consent to, just by virtue of their relationship.

In the same discussion, a couple of people created analogies about chores or eating vegetables – that requiring children to do either also overrides their will for their own bodies. One commenter explained the difference:

“I think forcing kids to be physical with other people is completely different from making them follow rules, behave respectfully, do chores and homework, etc… All those other things help that kid become a functional adult.”

Indeed. Learning to actively consent or refuse consent to touch is also a skill for healthy adulthood, while learning that consent must be given to protect other people’s feelings imperils both body and mind. As I also wrote there:

I think the difference with the food analogy is that a strange (or even familiar!) or unwanted food is never going to try to coerce you to eat it by playing on your socialization of being expected to eat it without making it feel bad – an approach I’ve heard from quite a few victims of sexual assault and other unwanted touch.

Finally, what went unacknowledged in the discussion was the fact that when children are physically or sexually abused – and women are raped – the abuser is most often someone the victim knows. So all those folks who want to say, “It’s just grandma, it’s just family, it’s just Uncle Creepy,” are ignoring the fact that the very people you are most like to force your children to hug or kiss are also the most statistically likely to be the abuser of your child. There is no magic “but we’re family” protection, and family is not always safe – pretending it is again overrides children’s instincts and creates vulnerabilities for them.

Bottom line: I think it’s actively harmful to force children to hug/kiss adults they don’t want to just to be polite, because of the lessons it sends them about bodily autonomy and consent, because it teaches them to ignore their own feelings and instincts, and because it creates the very vulnerabilities predators so often employ. Outside of rape and sexual harassment apologists, it should be apparent that as adults we have the right to refuse consent to intimate touch, and I can’t think of any compelling reason why this should be different for children.


Stray thoughts: an old friend mentioned the issue of having a child with a sensory processing disorder, and how she constantly has to help protect her child’s boundaries with people who – being totally aware of the child’s condition – refuse to modify their touching behavior to seek consent first. I think this is another important consideration – some folks may have physical or emotional needs for reduced touch. Just like you may think it’s polite for all guests to take their shoes off when entering your home, but this can actually be harmful to your guests with diabetes, those who are concerned about “not hurting anybody’s feelings” should consider the feelings and physical needs of those who are being asked to give up their right to consent. To not do so is itself not polite.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. referencegirl permalink
    June 22, 2012 10:25 am

    “…those who are concerned about “not hurting anybody’s feelings” should consider the feelings and physical needs of those who are being asked to give up their right to consent. To not do so is itself not polite.” Could not agree more. Well stated!

  2. June 22, 2012 12:22 pm

    I’ve felt that way since Aunt B made me think about it with her post way back when. But it always makes me wonder when a kid refuses to give me a hug.

    • June 22, 2012 6:12 pm

      Sometimes I think it’s pretty obvious – my niece who lives in Utah has seen me maybe 4 times in her whole life, so I’m basically a stranger, despite the family tie. Other folks have less obvious reasons, like a sensory disorder or simply not being in the mood, but I figure that’s their issue, not mine to figure out – unless for some reason it set off warning bells for me about their actual home situation.

  3. June 22, 2012 2:40 pm

    Spot on. Knowing child-development I agree with Rachel, do NOT force physical touch. Let it be part of the option as you teach social norms, but let the kid decide and don’t press the matter. When our son was just learning to speak we modeled the behavior and asked. He now spontaneously hugs family. Since he is learning proper boundaries, what is BIG for us since he’s a preKer is learning how to articulate saying no thank you instead of backing away. A wave or High-5 is an option that is more appropriate if physical contact is requested from someone you and your kids wouldn’t normally hug. I know I’ve thrown that out there if an adult has requested a hug. I say, how about a high-5 (if we know the person…pretty well)? Or I say, honey, just wave goodbye…great article!

    • June 22, 2012 6:12 pm

      Thanks for your comment Lyndsay – I like your approaches of a wave or high 5!

  4. Diane permalink
    June 23, 2012 4:04 pm

    My kids were NEVER forced to hug, kiss or otherwise touch when they did not wish to. This comes directly from my history of being sexually abused as a preschooler by the late-teen son of a live-in employee on our farm. The most out-going of my kids (tons of friends, extra curricular activities, etc) tells people she is surrounded by a bubble. One of her friends insists this indicates she was sexually abused (and in denial). I believe it is simply the result of her being taught to respect her own needs and boundaries–and the fact that from infancy she preferred running and playing to haning around for an extended cuddle. She decides whether her relationship with a person warrants a wave, handshake, side hug, full hug (close family) or more (her boyfriend). She’s done well in school and the beginning of her career and I’m quite proud of her!

    • March 22, 2013 7:31 am

      Good for your daughter, and you must have done a good job as well! 🙂 This sort of points out how strong the social pressure to just give in to touch is, that people think she has some issue simply because she sets and maintains her own physical boundaries.

  5. November 14, 2012 7:25 pm

    I was sexually assaulted as a freshman in college. A lot of times I wonder why I let it happen, or how I could have prevented it, but this is all part of the victim-blaming rhetoric. The fact is, he manipulated me… I could see through most of his bullshit. He told me I was so beautiful/tried to flatter me and that didn’t make me any more willing to do anything with him. But when he started saying how he’d be disappointed, how he was expecting something different, how it was socially polite for me to accept his offer… I felt obliged to comply. So I can say with certainty that the hypothesis about social obligation and rape/assault is spot-on.

    • March 22, 2013 7:30 am

      Thank you for sharing this, I really appreciate your perspective.

  6. March 21, 2013 12:03 pm

    I agree with this concept. I have an outlier question:
    When my toddler hits or grabs one of his playmates we stop him, and encourage him to practice gentle touching. It’s a practice we borrow from his daycare. Is that problematic in the same way? It seems like if he’s okay with the original touch this wouldn’t be an uncomfortable touch for him, but might be for the other child, and I’m sure he’s on both sides of this.

    • March 22, 2013 7:29 am

      I’m sure there are other people who are *much* more qualified to answer that question than I am, but my gut instinct is that when I’ve been aggressively touched by someone, I don’t want them to touch me again at all for a while (if ever). But then you can’t really explain in detail to a toddler so you have to show/model somehow, right? So it’s great that you’re encouraging gentle touch, but maybe find a way to practice that on other people that doesn’t require use of the immediate target of aggression? I’d love to hear what a child development/psych person would recommend, if there are any reading.

      • Kay permalink
        March 22, 2013 10:32 am

        Hi, I just arrived here from Jim Hine’s blog and I’m a psych person. My suggestion is that you, the adult, be the person who the toddler can practice soft touch on. You do not have the toddler practice this on the child they just aggressively touched because that other child can’t consent yet and just had their boundaries violated. This also holds true for pets.
        Also, verbally acknowledge to the other child that it was not ok for this to happen to zie, affirm zie’s right to not have someone touch them in a manner zie doesn’t like. Affirm zie’s right to say no and ask if zie needs anything from you. What usually happens is that most/all of the attention gets focused on the child who acted aggressively with only a cursory check on the other child to ensure that zie is not injured.

    • March 22, 2013 10:40 am

      Thank you, Kay. That all makes a tremendous amount of sense, and I appreciate your sharing it.

      • Kay permalink
        March 22, 2013 1:28 pm

        You are welcome. I’ve been looking through my resources but what I have are mostly highly specialized, scholarly journal articles, i.e. pretty long and boring unless you really love learning in great detail about psych experiments and case studies.

        I do reccomend the Child Psychotherapy Treatment Planner by Jongsma, Peterson, McInnis and Bruce. It might sound scary but it’s actually full of interesting ideas on how to help kids. The child does not have to have a mental health problem to benefit from some of the ideas on, say, anxiety or aggression. Some of the parents I work with asked where I was getting my ideas and I had to confess that they were not in fact always my original ideas. That lead to some parents asking to look at the book and then expressing surprise that a “therapy book” was so understandable.

        Most universities, colleges and community colleges with a early childhoood development program will have a website with articles, pamphlets and other helpful info on parenting, appropriate discipline etc.

  7. ginger e. permalink
    July 21, 2013 8:05 pm

    at a very young age i was forced to sit on the lap of an old man who lived on our block, he would ask all the mothers of their young girla to so this … this man made me feel extremely uncomfortable and though i can’t remember actual occurrences emotionally i know that he molested me …. to this day (i’m 56) when i think of it i’m totally upset and disturbed

  8. Chambra Hunter-Sundquist permalink
    July 31, 2013 4:05 pm

    I am a mother. I am mother to a beautiful, bright 5 year old child.

    My concern is that I have voiced the fact that my son is being sexually abused by his paternal grandmother, to my son’s child guardian(with the Ulster County, NY Family Court), judges, also to numerous lawyers, they have done nothing.

    I know for a fact that this grandmother used to kiss my child’s father up until he was atleast 10 years old. I am extremely scared that this will continue.

    The people within this UC legal system laughed and joked (about it) and have wrote the tongue kissing off as a “cultural thing.” Meanwhile my child is pressed with this probably ever time he is left alone with this woman.

    I am looking for advice. Maybe I can contact someone? Go somewhere. I need help. Please.

  9. Emily permalink
    August 30, 2013 1:43 am

    I hated forced hugs. I have really bad social anxiety so hugging anyone outside my immediate circle (mom and dad) was very uncomfortable for me. My dad remarried when I was 12, and my stepmother came from a family that hugged constantly. I have never hugged my stepmother and all because i wouldn’t hug her she felt i hated her and we had a horrid relationship up until recently when i finally told her about my social anxiety (i never wanted to tell her something so private and personal but i had just had it with how she felt i was so cold hearted). Only now does she realize its about my social anxiety, not her. I most likely will never initiate a hug with her. She even sent me a letter years ago about how cruel i was to her cause i wouldn’t hug her (did she really think that would improve our relationship or make me want to hug her, no i withdrew even more from her). When my grandmother died (i was 30!!!) my dad was pressuring me to hug his wife cause she was crying. His mother just died and thats what he is concerned about!!! How about he go up and hug her and comfort her. That is his job, not mine. I am the complete opposite from my stepmother as she hugs absolutely everyone and thinks i am very odd and strange cause i seldom hug. I always wished she could respect that we are different and respect that i have boundaries whereas she doesn’t have many physical boundaries. Then there’s family gatherings. Both my dad’s side and stepmother’s side are all about hugs, its how they greet and say goodbye, and i know i felt my boundaries violated on many occasions. Relatives hug too much or get too close to me. Its very intrusive to me. I won’t initiate a hug with anyone except for my mom and dad, and i’ve been that way since childhood and doubt that’ll change unless i ever get married i of course would hug my husband and children. My mom and I have a great relationship, but she doesn’t hug often and am so thankful she respects my personal boundaries cause absolutely none of my other relatives on my other sides of family have ever respected my personal boundaries to not hug. I think becaue of my social anxiety and being raised by my mom who seldom hugged it was very difficult to fit into my dad and stepmother’s families who hug constantly. Even extended family on my mom’s side do not hug. I seldom hugged my grandmother, aunt and uncle and 2 cousins on my mom’s side. Mom’s side was not touchy feely at all. But in my other families when i don’t hug its always been my fault, and i’m the cold hearted one who won’t hug. I don’t care if it is Grandma, a child should never be forced to hug anyone. I seldom hugged my grandparents and I had a fine relationship with them. I even lived with my maternal grandmother for over 10 years and we seldom hugged. We talked and had good times with eachother, but didn’t hug. But we still had a good relationship.


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